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Beer Festival User Guide

I have repeatedly provided versions of this information to various friends, so turning it into a web page seemed to make sense. Note that the main body of this page describes standard practice at CAMRA beer festivals; towards the end are some notes on variations at other beer festivals.

CAMRA Standard Practice

First, at the entrance to the festival, you may have to pay for entry. Whether you have to pay, and how much, may depend on the day of the week, the time of day, and whether you are a CAMRA member. Even if you don't pay, you may still be counted: some venues have restrictions on permitted numbers, and most festivals want to have some idea of how many people have come through the door.

Next, at or near the entrance, there will be a counter selling glasses. You should buy a glass here; unlike pub practice, glasses are not supplied at the bar. (Alternatively, you could bring a marked pint or half-pint glass of your own.) Usually both pint and half-pint glasses are available, typically with a commemorative design for the particular festival. Once you have a glass, it is yours for the duration of your stay at the festival; you should love and cherish it, as you will have to pay to get another one if you lose or break it. When you leave, you can either take it with you as a souvenir, or hand it back to be refunded what you paid for it. Also at or near the glasses counter, you should find a supply of lists showing the beers expected to be on offer - you may wish to acquire one of these as well.

Now you have your glass and your beer list, you should proceed towards the bar(s) to obtain some beer. Behind the bar will be racking, supporting a large number of beer casks. Some (hopefully many) of these will have large (usually A4) labels on, stating the brewery and the particular beer, the alcohol percentage (ABV) and the price. Only the beers with labels are available at any particular time, and this selection will change as some beers run out and other become ready to drink. The selection may also include some beers not on the pre-printed list, either because something delivered was different to what was ordered, or (particularly later on in the festival) extra beer has been ordered at short notice from any nearby source (!). By comparing what's available with any details (tasting notes or whatever) on the beer list, you may be able to select a beer you'd like to try.

Once you've chosen, move to a point close to the relevant cask (as this will save your hard-working volunteer barman from having to dash back and forth), present your glass and order in the usual way, preferably quoting the names of both brewery and beer. Don't be surprised if the barman isn't sure where the beer is - he or she may only have started serving 10 minutes previously, and not worked out where everything is yet.

Alternatively, you are at liberty to ask for a taste of one or two beers that sound promising before committing to buying one; you can even ask the barman for recommendations, though it's helpful to have some idea of what you might like to drink, e.g. type of beer, taste, strength. Note that exercising these options when the bar is busy will not make you popular with either the bar staff or your fellow drinkers!

Having received your chosen beer, and paid for it, you should retire to some convenient point to stand or sit and enjoy it, while contemplating what you might like to try next. Coming up with several alternatives will save disappointment when you get back to the bar to find that your single choice is not available.


Winter Ale Festival

Cambridge & District CAMRA runs an annual Festival of Winter Ales. This means the majority of the beers will be dark (milds, porters and stouts) and often quite strong - 5%, 6% and 7% ABV are quite common. There will probably be at least one beer of 10% (either almost undrinkable alcoholic treacle, or gustatory heaven in a glass - and you won't know until you try it). In order to help keep intake under control, only half-pint glasses are available, and the beers are only sold by the half-pint.

Festivals at Pubs

If a pub hosts or organises a beer festival, the arrangements for entry and glasses usually change from those indicated above. You do not have to pay to enter (unless possibly if the festival is in an entirely separate area of the pub's premises), and glasses are provided at the festival bar in the usual manner for a pub - you don't have to pay for one, you get a new one with each beer, and you can't take one away!

This page is copyright © of and maintained by Mark Waller
Last update: 2008-03-28